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CHAPTER IV,

PLYMOUTH

CHURCH.

ONGREGATIONALISTI has not had a very brilliant

history in the United States. It is one of the

smallest sects in the whole country. It has manifested no tendency to spread and fill the land as Methodism has done. Although some maintain with much vigour and zeal that it is the best system of church government ever conceived—the best in itself, and especially the best suited to the genius and habits of American society—the fact still remains that it has signally failed to take possession of the Western Republic. From reliable and official statistics prepared by the Rev. Dr. Quint, and published in the “Congregational Quarterly" for January 1873, we learn that the number of churches was 3263, of ministers 3201, and of communicants 318,916, with about 400,000 children in Sabbath schools. In New England, however, Congregationalism has always been the ruling sect. Dr. Schaff, a thoroughly unbiassed judge, assures us that "it has exerted, and still exerts, a beneficial influence upon the religious, social, and political life of the whole country.” Within that boundary its history has been exceedingly intense and supremely exciting. Its continued conflict with Unitarianism within and with infidelity without; its relations to the State, and at one period its identity with the same; its long and bitter controversy with extreme Arminianism and Antinomianism;

its unflinching adherence to the Bible as the only rule of faith and conduct—these things are known to every student of ecclesiastical history. But the great success it has achieved in New England is not in the least surprising when we remember that it was there the Pilgrim Fathers first settled, to whom Congregationalism was as dear as their own souls. Those heroic and glorious men leavened the very soil of New England with Congregational principles and convictions. Landing on Plymouth Rock on the 25th of December 1620, aflame with sincerest gratitude to Jehovah for His kind care and protection, one of their first acts was to organise a church wherein to worship. From that day down to this Congregationalism has seen an unparalleled prosperity in the New England States. But it has never A surished to any great extent in other parts of the country. It seems to suit the New England soil, and no other. Forty years ago the number of Independent Churches in the Middle States was extremely small. Even in Brooklyn, N.Y., the denomination was wholly unrepresented. Doubtless there were many Congregationalists residing in the city, natives of Boston, New Haven, Portland, and other New England districts; but at first they did not think it expedient to organise a church. Most of them identified themselves with the Presbyterians, whose Confession of Faith was the same as their own, and among whom they felt quite at home. But as their number increased they began to feel as if they would like to return to their old forms of worship, not that they were by any means tired of or dissatisfied with existing churches, but that there was something drawing them irresistibly toward the church of their fathers. They loved it with an attachment too sacred for expression. It was to them the only perfect church. “They revered its honoured names of John Robinson, and Bradford, and Miles Standish, and the gentle Lady Arabella,

who took New England on her way to heaven.' They loved its mossy memories of Holland and Delft Haven, and the "Mayflower's" cabin. They could remember no Gothic pile, nor groined arch, nor trained choirs, nor pealing anthems; but dear memories they had of a temple built in the wilderness, and arched by a foreign sky. Its corner-stone was a rock

at Plymouth; the snows of December carpeted its floor, and the bleak winds of winter, sighing through the primeval and leafless woods that were its columns, blended with the Pilgrim's song of praise to form the sublime ritual of that early church.” Strenuous efforts were therefore made to establish a Congregational Church in Brooklyn, “the city of churches." But failure seemed for many a year to be the only reward ; and some were led to suppose that Congregationalism could not succeed out of New England. At length, however, the dawn began to break, and in 1844 the Church of the Pilgrims was founded, which sprang at once into eminence, and boldly took its stand as one of the chief churches in the land. In 1845 it secured a faithful and efficient pastor in the Rev. Richard S. Storrs, who continues to serve it to the present day, and who is now well known both in America and Great Britain. There is scarcely a minister on either side of the Atlantic who has not read and derived benefit from his admirable little book, entitled, “Conditions of Success in Preaching without Notes.”

In the month of June 1847, nine members of Dr. Storrs's church were dismissed to unite with a few others in starting a new cause. Little did those people dream what would be the result of their action. They had no idea that they were giving being to a society that would shortly become known throughout Christendom. They were entirely in the dark as to the issue of their work. As soon as they had organised, they began to look aboutfora suitable minister. They searched near and far, and made innumerable inquiries. They were told of a certain young man who was then labouring with marked success in the far West. His father was pretty well known throughout the length and breadth of the land; but as to himself, his fame was as yet confined to his own State. But he was a man of unbounded promise. He was a born genius. His resources could never be exhausted. And he would certainly grow and develop. Satisfied as to these things, the new church, which was at best but an offshoot from another church not much older than itself, ventured to give him an unanimous call; and Henry Ward Beecher was severed from his happy home in the West and from the Presbyterian body at the same time.

It gave

It was a most important and hazardous change. Many of Mr. Beecher's best friends had solemnly urged him to stay where he was, assuring him that such a change would be disastrous to his future usefulness. Not a few had consoled him with predictions of total failure. Some had pointed to the fact that the church was an untried experiment, and warned him against meddling with mere experiments. But he was calm and firm in the midst of all, satisfied to abide the consequences of his own independent action. Undaunted alike by the kind dissuasions of friends and the cruel predictions of enemies, he entered upon the arduous duties of his new position with his whole heart and soul. He was installed pastor of Plymouth Church in October 1847. His first sermon

was from Ecclesiastes xii. 14, and it was characterised by great earnestness, solemnity, directness, and power. entire satisfaction to all. It was not a theological essay, as too many sermons were in that day, but a living, burning appeal to the heart and the conscience; not an interesting and instructive lecture, but a voice, an echo from the other world, summoning the hearers to stand face to face with God and the claims of the higher life. People perceived that the preacher was in dead earnest. Crowds flocked to hear him. There was no building in the whole city large enough to hold the thousands that were eager and anxious for the Word of Life as it came from his lips. His fame spread

hand. He at once became the most popular man of the day. Professor Fowler in his interesting volume, “The American Pulpit," writing in 1856, makes use of the following language in reference to Plymouth Church and its pastor : “Here gather twice on every Sabbath of the year, except during the summer solstice, about twenty-five hundred people, and the audience sometimes numbers three thousand. It is not unusual for the capacious body of the church, the broad galleries, the second elevated gallery, the several aisles, and all vacancies about pulpit and doors, to be occupied by eager listeners, and sometimes hundreds turn away unable to find footing within the audience-room. And this is no novel fact. It has been a fact for six years. Its persistence imparts to it the dignity of

abroad on every

a moral phenomenon. It is unprecedented in the history of audiences, whether religious, literary, political, or artistical. What in truth is it? It is not that an orator attracts a crowd. That is often done. But it is, that twice on each Sabbath of six years from two to three thousand people centre to an unchanged attraction. No dramatic genius, no melodious voice, no popular eloquence has ever done so much as that. Neither Macready, nor Garrick, nor Jenny Lind, nor Rachel, nor Gough, nor Clay, nor Choate has done it. The theatre must change its star' monthly, the singer must migrate often, the orator must make angel visits' to concentrate three thousand people. And the phenomenon is the more remarkable, in that this gathering is around the pulpit, where no art wins and no pleasure stimulates ; and furthermore, it occurs when hundreds of other audience-rooms are opened for the same purpose with pulpits suitably supplied, while competition must be banished before the stars of art can fill three thousand seats for a single evening. What is it that makes Plymouth Church an exception to all churches and to all audience-rooms? Is it because the pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, is the most eloquent man, or the most learned man, or the most godly man among the clergy? Neither is true of him. When these audiences began, ‘novelty' was assigned by some as the attraction, and wit' by others; but six years has ruined the one, and seekers for the other find attendance a too serious business. This question may well be pondered by all churches and in all pulpits, for it certainly is of moment to know the secret of Mr. Beecher's attraction when the serious problem of the day is this matter of public worship.”

It is now upwards of thirty years since Mr. Beecher came to Brooklyn, but at no period was his popularity greater than it is at present. Plymouth Church is no longer the largest place of worship in the country, but it is still the most important and influential. Dr. Talmage's Tabernacle will accommodate about twice as many people, and the same is true of Mr. Spurgeon's celebrated Metropolitan Tabernacle, and both these places are filled to overflowing every Sabbath; but, as far at least as America is concerned, it may still be

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